Poor Dumb Bum

I was fucking Rosie Fox on a pool table in the basement of a Lower East Side club called Quando. Rosie’s miniskirt was hiked to her waist, her panties were somewhere on the floor, her ass was positioned over the side pocket like a giant white cue ball, with her legs spread on either side and her high-heels digging into the lacquered mahogany. I was wearing a rumpled tropical white linen suit, with my pants down around my ankles as I pumped away.

It was Samuel Beckett’s birthday and also Good Friday, April thirteenth, and already it’d been a pretty full evening.

It began with drinks at Louise Bourgeois’ townhouse in Chelsea. Rosie was trying to sell a small marble sculpture to her friend Joyce Ames, and made the introductions as we entered. “Louise, this is Joyce Ames. Joyce loves your work. Don’t you Joyce?” It was more statement than question. Joyce smiled awkwardly.

“And this is my friend, Jake Sterne.”

The old woman in the blue smock raised her eyebrows with the disapproving look of a chaperone crone.

We drank Jack Daniels and ate cold seafood salad, consisting mainly of ribbons of rubbery, raw calamari and pink and gray slices of octopus suction cups. We were sitting in the library at the back of the townhouse. The room was covered with a patina of dust and grime. Louise Bourgeois’ famous rebellion against anything housewifely was defiantly clear. At one legendary turning point on her path to renown, she’d supposedly thrown out the family stove and told her late-husband and children to fend for themselves. C’est ca. She’d made a fortune on her art since then, but her kitchen contained only an electric hotplate for cooking.

Poor Dumb Bum 1

The tiny woman looked like a tortoise, or maybe ET, wizened and wrinkled, perched on a tall stool so that she was always just an inch or two higher than her guests.

She liked having Rosie around. Rosie magnetized drama and confrontations, and that appealed to the old woman’s dark sense of humor. She’d paid Rosie’s way to Paris a couple of times for the pleasure of watching her disintegrate on champagne and heartbreak.

“Your problem with men is that you want to eat them,” she coldly teased. “If you cannot eat them you are frustrated, but if you do devour them you lose interest. C’est ca.” I wondered what was in store for me.

Rosie’s friend Joyce was skinny, blond, high-strung, and rich. She was heir to some sort of a show-biz fortune, but bought art like she was shopping at a yard sale. From time to time, Rosie succeeded in selling a Louise to one of her wealthy friends, but Joyce wasn’t biting. While she and Rosie bickered, I attempted some clever repartee with la Grande Dame.

“Do you work out of love?”

“You do the best you can. C’est ca.

Everyone was beginning to get bored, until Louise invited us into the small studio in the front of the house, where she kept her prints and paintings. She had something new, she said; a commission from the city as part of its campaign to promote New York as the art capital of the world.

The painting was the Statue of Liberty, green, cross-eyed, stark naked, and pregnant.

“Liberty was French,” Louise asserted. “She stands in defense of sexual freedom.” The city fathers had disagreed and rejected it. But when Rosie saw the painting, she’d started salivating like a damn Pavlov’s dog. “It’s fantastic! Please, let Joyce have this one. Joyce, don’t you love it? Please, let her buy it,” she begged, lunging to grab the painting out of the old woman’s wrinkled, liver-spotted hands.

“No!”

“No? But…” Rosie’s voice rose in a hysterical whine. “But, Joyce LOVES it. Don’t you Joyce? DON’T YOU LOVE IT?”

“NO!” Louise repeated. “This does not represent my art!” And with that she’d taken out a razor blade, slashed an X through the painting, and threw it into a trash can. She stood glaring frigidly at Rosie. “C’est ca.”

We’d piled into a cab and went from there to Joyce’s apartment for more drinks. When we arrived, her boyfriend Rocco was sipping a beer and watching Roadrunner cartoons with his feet up on a leather divan. He was about two hundred fifty pounds of beef with an oily black pompadour. He looked like a killer; maybe he was. He had no other gainful employment, except for fucking Joyce and putting up with her shit. But, that night, he got sore when she whirled in like a bleach-blonde Tasmanian devil and turned off the TV. They’d started fighting; he’d started slapping her around, and she’d started throwing his clothes out in the hallway. Rosie and I watched in stunned drunken amazement.

“Maybe we ought to leave.”

“You think?”

“Yeah, I do.”

We’d taken a cab downtown to Quando, where a Beckett’s birthday celebration was underway. The club was a converted high school gym, and the smell of phantom locker rooms and ghostly naked flesh filled my mind with lurid fantasies. Rosie looked real good in her mini-dress, black stockings, and stiletto heels, and she still wasn’t so out of it she couldn’t stand up.

We were drinking whisky and listening to the band playing loud, electric blues, when we bumped into Damian Jones. Damian was an African-American writer and performance artist. He was unusually reticent for a writer. His eyes did a lot of his talking, whether sharply focused and curious, arched in disbelieving skepticism, or wide-open in wonder at the ever surprising fuck-ups life served up. Usually, he spoke only when it was necessary to make an urgent point.

When he was amused he laughed with a loud, deep, gulping, HaYUCK, HaYUCK, HaYUCK! When he was down, he brooded in silence or slept. I’d never met anyone who could fall asleep more easily, whether he was on a sofa, a chair, a park bench, or on just enough dogshit-free bare ground to stretch out with his head on his knapsack.

Damian’s performances compensated for his quietness. That night, he was going to read Lucky’s monologue from “Godot.” He was wearing a garage mechanic’s denim coverall and his face and hair were covered in red, yellow, and orange makeup. He was going through a nakedness phase, to achieve a level of pure expression that could only be approached in the nude, and that was how he intended to deliver his performance. When he pulled off his mechanic’s coverall, the same red, yellow, and orange make-up on his face covered the rest of his body, down to his multi-colored cock.

“Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua…” The audience booed, and two young thugs who were running the show hauled him away, menacing pieces of lumber they’d picked up off the floor.

Rosie and I went off exploring the building. I held her hand as we laughed, stumbling down the stairs to the basement.

Past the first door was an empty swimming pool lit with candles on the sides and on all the subterranean planks, pilings, and pipes. Voices from the darkness rang with metallic echoes like the clank of machinery. The next door we tried opened to the billiards room, where we’d ended up with Rosie spread on the green felt tabletop and me slipping in and out of her with the total concentration of a hustler lining up a bank shot with my cocka-cue kadoodle-do.

Those days, Rosie was funny and sexy and crazy. It took the alcohol and drugs years to burn her down. Those days, Kirlian sparks of neon light danced like illuminated dust motes in the space around her. This was no mere metaphor. One night at Rosie’s apartment, the painter Gilbert Marx and his wife Lucy had seen them too, the tiny, flashing glow-worms that wiggled in the air around her.

“Did you?” was all Gilbert said.

I nodded.

Rosie was like a beautiful china doll, with long black hair, smooth satiny skin, and frightened brown eyes—always in danger of breaking.

After the party, I took her back to the Fifth Avenue studio apartment with cotton candy walls she called her “little pink prison.” She passed out on the bed. I undressed her, pulled the covers up, and went uptown to my apartment to sleep. I dreamed I was running up the hundreds of steps to the Art Museum. I ran and ran but didn’t get any closer to the top, no matter how much I ran. I woke up sweating.

Around ten in the morning, Rosie called. She was crying. She said she loved me but had felt too embarrassed to tell me. She said she was going up to Maine to sort things out at her mother’s summer house. She’d be back in a few weeks.

“Okay, Rosie. I’ll see you when you get back.”

“Okay, Jake. Jake?”

“Yeah, Rosie.”

“Do you love me?”

“Sure I do, Rosie.”

I did love her, too. Rosie called out to the hero in me, the one I still wanted to believe in but knew deep down did not exist. I hoped she wouldn’t come back.

I was living in a one-bedroom apartment in a brownstone on the Upper West Side. I still had some money from my last advance check, but not enough to cover the rent, so I was sharing the place with a fifty-year old, unemployed screenwriter named Avram Gimble and Crazy Mazie, his twenty-two year old girlfriend. They slept on the pull-out couch in the living room.

I’d been sharing the bedroom with my last girlfriend, Laura, whose long, braided, Valkyrie hair stretched to her ass and whose lidded Mongolian eyes would fix me for minutes on end in stupid adoration. I’d broken up with Laura that winter. She’d gone home to Oregon to play in the snow and try to get sober, and I’d started fucking Rosie almost as soon as she’d left.

Avram had helped me edit the final draft of my book, and now, he and Mazie were about to kick back and begin what would turn into a two-month crack binge. When the rent was due, they’d go see Big Al, the man with the big green buds on Central Park West, and pick up a few hundred dollars each packaging designer weed in heat-sealed plastic bags.

The nightly ritual on the other side of my bedroom door, the sharp Freon stench, the tink-tink-tink tink-tink-tink of the metal wand on laboratory glassware, the electric torch flicking into flame, the muttering and nervous pacing between hits, was driving me crazy, and I’d been spending more nights at Rosie’s little pink prison than at my own place.

Gimble and Mazie were out of control. But, let’s face it, who was I to talk? Sure, I’d written a couple of books, but sometimes I wondered if I wasn’t just getting off watching people crash and burn, even those I supposedly loved, while I stayed safe, indifferent, and greedy for more. Maybe that’s what writers were supposed to do. I didn’t know for shit.

I’d handed in my book and was taking odds and ends assignments while I sat around waiting for my next check. I was working on an article for the Voice called “Man in Search of Underwear,” about buying underwear for your girlfriend, but I really wasn’t in the mood to write at all. I’d only gotten as far as the line, “Don’t buy anything with writing on it,” before I’d stalled.

That was when Damian called and asked me what I was doing.

“Not much,” I had to admit.

“How’d you like to be in a play?”

“I’m a writer not an actor.”

“You don’t have to act. Just be yourself.”

“Why me?”

“Because the rest of the cast quit, and I’m the only one left, and you owe me a favor.”

“A favor? Since when?”

“Since now. I’m doing you a favor by asking. You’re made for this part, Jake, you’ll be perfect. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

“You’re sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.”

“Okay, then. Sure.”

I was taking in the scene and reflecting on the Mcluhanesque street in April’s eternal sunshine, as I followed a trail of purple footprints marking a random path through the East Village. The prints had been left by Mister Purple, an old hippie with long white hair and beard, who dressed completely in purple velvet clothes like a jester, and rode around on a purple bicycle. He’d designed a machine that squirted purple paint from a canister on his back through a series of tubes onto spongy foot pads on the soles of his feet. He’d take a few steps, get back on his bike, pedal a few blocks, and leave a few more footprints. No one ever asked why; it was what Mister Purple did: medium and message.

The Brainstain Theater was located on St. Mark’s Place between First and Avenue A, a block from Tompkins Square Park and not far from Alphabet City, where the crack and dope dealers had converted the abandoned buildings into a flourishing black market.

The Brainstain was way Way WAY off-Broadway, as far off-Broadway as you could get.

I’d read the script Damian had given me. The play, called “Poor Dumb Bum,” was a black comedy about a couple of rich art collectors (A and P). P, the Husband (that was going to be me) brings home a passed-out Bum from the gutter (that was going to be Damian) and wants to keep him as found art, which delights A, the Wife (that was going to be an avant-garde singer punk diva named Maria Repulsive). A and P get married and fuck, while the Bum does a dance of liberation and passes out. Then they starve him to death and put him in a frame. The end.

Poor Dumb Bum 2

“It’s about greed and the art world. It’s murder! Greed murders art and the artist,” Shelley Blum, the play’s author, director, and producer speedily explained, as we sat on the bleachers in the loft-size basement. Half the space was taken up by the stage; the rest was filled with gym bleachers, large enough to hold an audience of about fifty. A narrow aisle to the right of the stage led to the bathroom and a backyard garden.

Shelley paused, and switched gears. “So, you can do it, right? I mean, can you, please?” She had the pitiful look of a mouse begging for a piece of cheese. “We need you—desperately.” Opening night was Friday, just two days away.

Okay, I told her, I’d do the play for a couple of weeks, until I got a decent assignment and they found a real actor.

After I’d agreed, Shelley relaxed a bit and began chattering about the links between the Church and the Mafia and how it related to the Marriage/Fuck scene in the play. She was a small, anorexically-thin woman with very short black hair. She was as tightly wound as a watch spring, and could unravel just as explosively. Damian once described her as “a little mofuckin mongoose.”

She had a pet albino pigeon named Nicolai that was strutting around in front of us. The bird spent its days flying out of the reach of her two cats and pecking its way around the place looking for crumbs. Shelley had it on a macrobiotic diet and it was always starving.

Her husband, Claude Gilder, a tall, rugged-looking Dutchman, helped run the theater and played his saxophone on the streets for change to buy cigarettes and cat food. He was a refugee from an Amsterdam banking family who’d come to the States via Southeast Asia where he’d had some sort of shady job that he never talked about. Claude had fixed up the space, built the stage, and rigged bootleg electricity from a public utility pole outside to run the black lights that made the actors glow. There was running water and the toilet flushed. At night, he and Shelley pulled out a mattress hidden behind the props and made the Brainstain Theater their home.

Poor Dumb Bum 3

As Shelley and I got acquainted, Damian snoozed in a raggedy lawn chair in the back garden. It was nothing more than a few tufts of grass popping through hard, dry clay, a stinky Ginkgo tree, and a frayed chez lounge and deck chairs, but in the heart of Manhattan, it was an oasis.

Maria Repulsive was late. We waited an hour until she made her entrance with all the flare of a newly-hatched superstar. Her purple lips smiled from an innocent dimpled face that still hadn’t lost its baby fat, coiffed with spiky blue and orange-dyed hair. She was cute, until she sang. There was nothing cute about her hundred-decibel, three-octave operatic voice, which she punctuated with trills, chirps, whistles, and animal howls during her musical performances. She had a voice that could shatter beer bottles and pierce eardrums.

She called herself Maria Repulsive but her real last name was Pringle, and she was “still a good Catholic girl,” she swore, one of nine children whelped by her good Catholic parents. “My full stage name is Maria Theresa Repulsive—Saint Maria Theresa Repulsive.”

She was twenty-three. Her typed professional resume read:

• green sea turtles

• macrobiotic cooking

• health: good

She’d gained a little subterranean notoriety for her ear-splitting version of the Star Spangled Banner, but to pay the bills Saint Maria worked at an S&M brothel called the Fantasy Spa, tending to businessmen who liked to be spanked.

Damian snored in his deck chair, while Maria and I spent the next hour running our lines in the garden. Damian had no lines; his role was entirely mute, like he was most of the time.

As we practiced, a voice called to us from the third floor fire escape above. “Hey.”

We looked up. A pretty teenage girl in a Catholic School uniform smiled down at us. A piece of paper fluttered in the breeze and landed at our feet. When we unfolded it, we saw it was a drawing of us captioned “Discussion of the actors,” and signed Chivon. We waved to her as if we were movie stars, and she beamed. There’s no business like show business.

We held our first rehearsal the same night. Shelley set the scene, giving us the backstory for our characters, P and A. “They’re young idealists turned yuppie. They have sex every night and always make it a party. They covet each other’s possessions. They hide pieces of chewing gum around the apartment. They exploit the Bum out of greed, but he bears part of the blame.”

“What part?” I asked

“Remember? The Metamorphosis?,” she said, gesturing with her fingers as if she was giving me clues, like I should have known the answer. I shrugged.

“Gregor turns into a bug, but a bug can also turn into a chrysalis, then into something beautiful. Because Gregor and the Bum are unable to transcend themselves, they die.” Shelley was serious; she was always serious.

During the first scene, I made my entrance carrying Damian on my back. Damian was thin and scrawny, but heavy enough to slip a disk on, so Shelley showed me how to hold him back to back, so he could look unconscious but still carry some weight on his feet. After I hauled him in, I dumped him on the floor and Maria entered, running to the bathroom with a tampon in her hand. Observing Bum, she stopped and circled cautiously, poking him with tampon. The scene was mostly choreography. We did it a few times and that was as far as we got before Maria had to go back to the Fantasy Spa. The businessmen were waiting to be spanked.

At our second rehearsal, Thursday afternoon, we went over the Food Torture scene, in which I made the starving Bum beg like a dog for a rotten apple, and Maria sensuously ate a banana, dangled the peel just out of his reach, then dropped it on the floor as he lunged for it and slipped. The gag went back a hundred years, but never got old. We laughed until we couldn’t laugh anymore, then laughed some more.

When we’d recovered enough to go on, we rehearsed the Wedding/Fuck Scene, when, with the Bum asleep and bound in ropes, A and P exchanged mock vows.

“What’s mine is mine.”

“Whatever is mine will always be mine.”

“Never yours.”

“Never.”

“Forever.”

“I do.”

“I do.”

Then we went behind an illuminated screen, with only our shadows showing, and pretended to fuck while the Bum got out of his ropes and did his Dance of Liberation around the stage until he collapsed exhausted.

The Friday afternoon dress rehearsal went on past seven. “Poor Dumb Bum” premiered at eight.

Before the performance, we shared a traditional back stage group hug, and Shelley and Claude told us how proud they were of us “kids.” The opening performance began an hour late, but went smoothly enough, apart from me knocking over a bookshelf that nearly hit Maria; at least no lines got left out. There were three people in the bleachers.

The plan was to rehearse Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, and perform the play Wednesday and Friday nights. On the other nights, Shelley and Claude sublet the space to other theater groups for enough money to keep the scene going.

When I arrived for rehearsal the following Tuesday, Shelley was in the garden with Damian and John the Stagehand, a kid from the neighborhood who was helping her out at the theater. He had two small tufts of bright orange hair in the front and back of his shaved head that looked like he had an exotic form of ringworm. The three of them were cleaning up a bag of garbage the upstairs neighbor had thrown into the yard. Once they’d finished cleaning up the mess, John the Stagehand went back to work on a hole he was digging in the garden.

“Why?” I asked him.

“To see if there’s concrete below.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to dig.”

About ten minutes later he struck something solid and called Shelley over to look. “It’s a drain!” she squealed, as excited as if they’d struck oil.

She needed some gaffer’s tape and other supplies so she sent John to the hardware store with twelve dollars to get them. When he didn’t return half an hour later, she began to worry.

“He’s probably just disappointed that there’s no more nice dirt to play in,” I reassured her.

John came back ten minutes later, dropped off the supplies, packed some of the leftover debris into a cardboard box and took it home, saying he was going to spray paint the dirt silver.

In the meantime, Maria had arrived and was playing with one of the cats, making gurgling turkey sounds, “Gibbleygibbleygibbley. Gibblegibblegibble.” The cat looked confused.

We worked on our lines in the garden while a kid next door heaved stones over the high fence and the cats chased Nicolai.

After rehearsal, Damian and I bought cheeseburgers and fries and a couple of beers in paper bags and went to Tompkins Square Park to eat. Damian didn’t have his own apartment and was crashing wherever he could. That night he was going to Queens where he could stay at one friend’s place, and had another crash pad at another friend’s apartment for the next three days. Everything he possessed, manuscripts, clothes, and books, were in the knapsack he carried on his shoulder.

There were cops patrolling the park as part of an Alphabet City clean-up the mayor had ordered.

A woman, about twenty-five years old, was passed out on a bench in front of us, while her boy friend leaned over trying to rouse her. When he couldn’t, a cop came along to play taps on her feet with his nightstick. But the law and order would only last until about nine o’clock, when the patrols stopped and the drug dealers, skinheads, homeless kids and crackheads would drift back, to hang out to loiter near bonfires in garbage cans, as in the streets of Alphabet City fire-trucks, their sirens wailing, sped to another squat shooting gallery blazing in the night, sparked by the careless ash of a nodding junky’s cigarette or deliberately torched by the landlord.

A couple of punks in blue and orange Mohawks walked past.

“I once had a VCR,” one of them bragged.

“How fuckin marvelous for you,” his friend sneered, slamming into him with a full body check.

“Fuck you!” the other cursed, slamming back into his friend and sneering.

When the police finally moved on, I pulled out a joint of Big Al’s best and some coke Gimble had given me. I used my bank card to chop it up on my script. We quickly snorted a couple of lines and were toking on the joint when suddenly the usually reticent Damian began talking and talking and talking about something; I just wasn’t sure what.

“I don’t know, man. How was I to know? I just fucking don’t know. I was hungry. I was just hungry and I was sitting in the park. Right over there! See? And this guy, this white guy with long hippie hair, he comes around, saying, ‘If you’re hungry come and eat,’ like mofuckin Jesus, man, with the loaves and mofuckin fishes. There were lots of people going up to the guy and no one seemed to be getting poisoned or anything. I mean, no one was throwing up. You know what I mean? I mean no more people puking than any other fuckin day in Tompkins Square. And like I say, I was hungry, really hungry. I was broke and hadn’t had anything to eat in a couple of days, so I think, okay, why not? I mean, fuck, how was I to know? It tasted good, plenty of vegetables and some kind of meat, and it was warm, man. Warm. Oh, the mofuckin irony!”

He snorted another line, inhaled the joint deeply, and slowly exhaled. “Life is so fucked up, B. The man thinks it’s me that’s the threat. Cocaine- crazed Negroes, consumed with violent homicidal passions, unstoppable, in-fuckin-vulnerable to bullets. Pure mofuckin Negrophobia. Listen, B. I quote, the report of the Shanghai Commission, nineteen fuckin fourteen, quaquaquaqua: ‘Cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by Negros in the South, quaquaquafuckityqua.’ Jesus fuckin Christ, can’t anyone see what’s REALLY going on? Are they that BLIND? You think it was different back then? Sweet Southern Belle sashays up to Black dude minding his OWN fucking business, and coos like a mofuckin dove in his ear, “Say, baby, you got any blow? If you got any blow, I’ll be real good to you, baby.’ ‘Now, Miss Mary Lou, you know I’s just a po sharecropper for yo pappy. What po me be doin wit dem cocaines?’ ‘Well, baby, you know what I’m going to do if you don’t give me any blow. I’m going to scream, I’m going to scream RAAAAAAAPE!’

“Do I look like a menace? One hundred twenty pounds, five-foot fuckin eight me? But, this ain’t rational, this most definitely ain’t, this is the big BOOGY-MAN you see before you. Just put a little coke in the inoffensive ‘yassir, nosir’ Negro—and he will RE-LI-ABLY run amok. So, the brave mofuckin policeman has no choice, see. He knows he must kill or be killed. So he pulls out his gun and puts it right over the Negro’s heart, BAM! But the shot doesn’t even stagger him; he keeps coming at him, coming at him. So he fires again, BAM, BAM right into his chest, and that slows him down some but only a little. Then the cop starts thinking, shit, what if there be some more of these cocaine-crazed Negroes around. What the fuck I’m going to do? I only got three shots left, dig? So he beats the guy to death with his club. Ha-YUK ha-YUK ha-YUK,” he laughed loudly, caught his breath and continued. “I’m the threat. I’M THE MENACE. Really? REALLY? I’m the menace? You know who used to live over there?” He pointed to an apartment building across the park. “Daniel fuckin Rakowitz. A white Jewish guy, just like you, Sterne. Well, maybe not quite like you. He sold a little blow, had enough around to attract this Swiss exotic dancer named Monica. Fuckin beautiful chick, man, fine piece of ass. So what does the mofucker do? He goes crazy one night and beats her to death, then chops up her body into pieces and boils her in a five-gallon bucket. Do I really have to go on? Do I really have to fill in all the mofuckin blanks for you, man? He made her into soup, man. SOUP!—and served it to the hungry in Tompkins Square Park. Hungry people like ME! How the fuck should I know? I was hungry. Nobody knows shit when they’re hungry except they’re hungry. That was two years ago. And do you know what? DO YOU KNOW WHAT? That mofucker is up for parole. And I’m the menace. Shit!”

I bought us a couple more beers and a couple of shots at a Ukrainian bar, then Damian went off to the apartment in Queens where he was crashing and I went uptown to spend the night listening to clinking glassware, coughing, mumbling and pacing, Mazie giving Gimble a blow job for his fifty-first birthday, then more clinking glassware, coughing, mumbling and pacing.

“Poor Dumb Bum” played Wednesdays and Fridays throughout May and June, through several transformations and mutations. When we’d started, the play took fifteen minutes to perform. By the time we were done adding scenes and choreography, it took an hour. It was real theater now, and I’d agreed to stay on. Maybe we’d even take it to reviews. Maybe I was having fun and doing something creative with my writer’s block, even if I wasn’t making a dime and my publishers were stalling with my next advance check. Maybe I’d keep playing P forever. The show must go on, right? Fuckin right!

But show biz being show biz, shit was bound to hit the fan. Shit like Damian and Maria having a short, intense full-moon fling that quickly crashed on the murderous shoals of all show-biz romances. As the still secret affair heated up, their interactions on stage became much more physical, particularly during the Food Torture scene, when Maria started flinging Damian wildly across the stage, while he stumbled around slam dancing into her.

Then Damian announced he was going to bring more nakedness to his performance by taking off his clothes during the Dance of Liberation to illustrate, he quietly and convincingly explained, “the mofuckin transcendence” of the Marriage/Fuck scene. His unspoken motivation, to stumble and rub his nakedness all up and down Maria, would have been less convincing.

“What do you think?” he asked.

We huddled in the garden.

“Well, I dunno…There’s no nude dancing in our lease.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“I don’t see why not,” I said. “Except…”

“Except what?”

“Except handling him.”

In the last scene, that was going to be a problem. Once the Bum was dead I had to heave his limp body into a frame. I preferred not to have to heave a naked, limp body.

“You’ve got a point.”

“Maybe so.”

Even Damian had to agree. We decided that he would be nude for the Dance of Liberation, but would put his clothes back on for the Death Scene.

After that, Maria decided to do the Marriage/Fuck Scene topless with day-glow streaks on her tits. She didn’t have an esthetic reason; she just didn’t want to be outdone by Damian. Handling Maria’s small day-glowing breasts presented no obstacle as far as I was concerned. Only her taking off clothes meant I’d have to take off clothes too. I decided to jettison my trousers, revealing bright red-and-white polka dot drawers that glowed in the black light. I kept on my dress shirt, suit coat, and the rest of my costume. “I look more sinister that way,” I persuaded Damian and Maria.

I was sitting under a tree in Tompkins Square, writing in my journal. It was early evening. It was my father’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death a year before from a stroke. I hadn’t lit a memorial candle and, in a couple of hours, I’d be prancing around the Brainstain stage in my underwear with a topless Diva and a naked Bojangles. If he could only see me now.

A translucent half-moon glowed in the dark blue sky. “I have this feeling of finality,” I wrote. “It’ sad, but the real message is ‘Pay Attention.’” It was good advice; maybe it was my father talking.

On the other side of the tree, a little boy played hide and seek and was counting, “One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand…” A white seagull hovered in the sky. I closed my eyes and when I opened them the bird was gone. “Ready or not, here I come.” And then, so was the little boy.

When I got to the theater, Maria swaggered in boasting how she’d “turned the dials around” in the recording studio where she’d cut a track of her fractured National Anthem. “I’M A STAAAAAAAARRRR!” she crowed, using the full power of her three-octave voice to send flocks of sparrows and pigeons fluttering out of range in fear.

There were three people in the audience when the overture started. Rosie, who’d just gotten back from Maine, arrived late with a handful of art world friends, and started kicking on the door, “Hey, HEY! We wanna see the SHOW! Let us IN!”

The performance was terrible. It was all too obvious that the affair between Damian and Maria had gone sour. They were like a pair of Mexican wrestlers pounding each other, with Damian dressed entirely in loose rags and Maria wearing a filmy see-through negligee with day-glow butterflies stapled to her breasts and crotch. He lunged at her blindfolded and she swung him against the bookshelf; he cracked his head and the shelf collapsed on top of him. He picked himself up, wheeled back across the stage flailing his arms like a blind dervish, and caught her on the chin with a roundhouse right.

As he headed out the door after the show, Damian brushed past Maria, toppling her forward. “You’ll go far,” she hissed at him. “So get going!”

After the performance, I went out with Rosie for drinks at the Horseshoe, and then stopped at a gallery opening in the Village where they were serving Harvey’s Bristol Crème. We had a few of those, too, and started kissing in a corner. I slipped my hand under her skirt and stroked her thighs. She laughed. “You have this thing,” she told me. “It makes my skin feel like bee bites, and we’re both taking antibiotics.”

I had no idea what she meant. When Rosie got drunk she spoke her own language.

We’d ended up at a party at Vigo Burgess’s place on Charles Street. Rosie had gone out with Vigo before me, and being around him made her nervous. When she got nervous she drank more and, by ten o’clock, she was wobbling. The smeared lipstick on her nose, and the brightly colored skirt she was wearing made her look like a giant toddler as she danced, clapping her hands, until she passed out in a big ball of black chiffon in the corner of the couch. She staggered up a half an hour later and left alone.

The next day when I spoke to her on the phone, she was mad at me for abandoning her and I was mad at her for getting drunk. “Your eyes wander,” she scolded. “You think they’re looking for someone better than me, but really they’re looking at your own failures.” That was the sort of profound, soul-piercing observation I’ve only known drunks to make.

By the following weekend, Rosie and I were back together, getting high on the rest of Gimble’s cocaine. We’d gotten drunk the night before and were pretty hung over. Rosie and I usually fucked in the morning. Rosie liked getting fucked hung over. It was Saturday morning and we were watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

A couple of days before, she’d had some sort of gynecologic procedure, she’d told me, but hadn’t made out like it was anything serious. All I knew was her pussy was a little sensitive, and when she offered to blow me instead, I didn’t say no. I smeared some cocaine around tip of my cock to make it numb and, with Pee-Wee Herman shrieking hysterically in the background, she played with it in her mouth for the next half hour.

Afterwards, she started to cry and she cried for about twenty minutes before she told me why. “I was pregnant, Jake. I had an abortion. It might have been yours, Jake. I don’t think so, but it might have been. They told me I might not be able to have children. Oh, Jake, I want a baby.” Her body heaved and shook. I held her. “It’s okay, Rosie. It’s okay, baby,” I whispered. “It’s a water baby. In Japan, that’s what they call them, the spirits of aborted babies: they call them water babies and they wait in a special heaven to be reborn. Don’t worry, Rosie. Don’t worry, baby. Don’t feel bad. Don’t.”

After a while, she calmed down. We snorted a couple more lines and had a couple of shots of the vodka from the freezer and we both began to brighten up.

The week Poor Dum Bum closed, the pipes under the floor backed up, flooding the bathroom. Shelley turned off the water, but ended up cutting off the whole building, causing an uproar. “Yo, bitch! You wanna fuckin fist up your ass? Turn the goddamn water back on!” the third floor tenant was gently requesting when I arrived for our Wednesday performance. A half hour before we went on, Shelley and Claude were still carrying buckets of water from the bathroom into the garden.

To add to their problems, Con Ed had disconnected their bootleg electric line. Claude had managed to string wires across the floor to the outside hall socket, where their landlord paid the electric bill. Why not? They owed the electric company a thousand dollars and were four months behind in rent. Claude was working a construction job to bring in more money. Things couldn’t get worse. At least, the performance that night went pretty well considering Damian and Maria weren’t speaking; at least no one got hurt or poisoned on rotten fruit. But when I arrived for closing night, Friday, it was clear something had gotten terribly worse. Shelley was crying, Claude was crying, and her cherished albino pigeon Nicolai lay in state in a red milk carton, with its little clawed feet pointed straight up in the air.

Alas, poor Nicolai, murdered most fowl by one of the cats, just when Shelley was so sure he was getting ready to become something else, finally about to go beyond. “I know he was,” she insisted, “because he would sleep with me since Claude started working. He was trying to be Claude. He was kissing me and cooing. All he wanted was to sleep late. But I said, ‘If you don’t get up you’re going to be squab.’” Her face wrinkled and tears dripped down her cheeks. “And I put him in the hallway where the cat was hiding. I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”

After the attack, she’d run with the injured bird to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s Hospital. She didn’t know where else to go. On the way, she bumped into Damian. He saw the bird and looked troubled. “He looks like he doesn’t have much time left,” he said quietly, and Shelley had taken Nicolai home to die.

“He paid with his blood—A SACRIFICE TO THEATER!” she declared bravely.

Coming in from the garden, Maria Repulsive accidentally tripped over the bird’s coffin. She shrieked. Shelley shrieked.

Maria had changed her look. She’d cut her hair shorter. “No more clown face,” she asserted. No more orange and blue eye make-up, no more day-glow purple lipstick! No more being “on” all the time. No more being married to her art. No to her boss at the Fantasy Spa, who called her “rotund.” No to the bartender who once said she looked scary. No to the manic fringe. No. No. No. No. She was a lady now.